THE RUSSIA-POLICY OF THE ORBÁN-GOVERNMENT
Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán has often been perceived both in the Western and in the Hungarian media as a „Trojan horse” of Russia inside the EU and NATO. The present article argues, however, the though Orbán is indeed attracted by the illiberal regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is far from being a loyal ally of Russia in any sense. With other words, though he may be a Putinist, but is not pro-Putin at all. Instead, he is trying to conduct a Hungarian version of multi-vectorialism, constantly maneuvering between the West and Russia, trying to gain economic benefits from both sides as the same time, while preserving political freedom of action. The problem is that Moscow is constantly strengthening its political and economic positions in Budapest, thus the sustainability of Orbán’s maneuvering is becoming increasingly questionable.
Orbán Might Be a Putinist…
Viktor Orbán and his government have decisively transformed Hungary since their victory on the 2010 elections. By taking a maximum use of the constitutional majority, the ruling party Fidesz has adopted a new constitution in Hungary, as well as a new law on elections, which included massive gerrymandering, a highly biased media regulation, and several other measures which decisively weakened the system of checks and balances that was supposed to be the guardian of democracy and rule of law in Hungary.
The speed and intensity of all these changes have surprised many observers both in Hungary and in the West. However, in fact that was not much to be surprised about. Already in September 2009, so actually well before the parliamentary elections in a speech delivered in Kötcse Orbán drafted up his vision about a “central field of power”. By this expression he meant that instead of the duality of two major competing political forces (i.e. the Leftist-Liberal and the Rightist-Conservative) in the next 15-20 years Hungary should be dominated by a single, massive rightist political party that would rule the whole political field without “unnecessary” debates. This central field of power was, obviously, his own party - the Fidesz. Thereafter, the constitutional majority democratically achieved in the 2010 elections provided him with the tools to realize his vision.
The decisive changes in the legislative system briefly described above secured Orbán another victory of constitutional majority in the April 2014 elections. However, unlike in 2010, this election was already far from being fair. The report of the OSCE about the elections describes in detail all the distortions and irregularities. Orbán was mostly lucky, because already in April the world’s attention was diverted by the Ukrainian crisis, and this was even more the case, when the OSCE report came out in mid-July 2014.
Soon thereafter, on 29 July 2014 Orbán delivered another speech, this time in Băile Tușnad, Romania, on the annual gathering of the Hungarian political right in this small town in the Hungarian-populated part of Romania. In this speech he praised China, Russia and Turkey, claiming that the non-liberal, non-democratic systems of these countries empowered them to be economically successful. Hence, he drafted up another vision for Hungary, the model of a labour-based state (munkalapú állam) which is to replace the liberal state.
Most recently, he visited Kazakhstan on 1st April, where he declared about Hungary that “We are equal in political terms in the European Union, but genealogically we are different”, besides praising the political stability and the economic development of Kazakhstan. Taking into account both these declarations (and the many ones not listed here) and the transformation of Hungary he has conducted, one may have only little doubts that Mr. Orbán finds authoritarian, illiberal, centralized political systems indeed attractive.
…but is he pro-Putin?
However, Orbán’s apparent attraction to authoritarianism, including its Putinist form, does not automatically mean that he would be in favour of Russia’s foreign policy. In fact, Orbán has been so far reluctant to take up any serious confrontation with Hungary’s Western partners in order to protect Russia’s interests. While in his rhetoric he keeps up being highly critical to the West and often praises Russia, but in terms of deeds he is far from being a loyal ally of Moscow.
Again, there is not much surprising in this either. One needs to remember that ever since the start of his political career in the late 1980s, Orbán has probably been one of the most anti-Russian politicians of Central-Europe. This seemed to change only in November 2009 – after more than two decades! – when, while already preparing for the 2010 parliamentary elections, he was invited to the congress of the United Russia Party in St. Petersburg and had a reportedly important discussion with Vladimir Putin. However, taking into account the long anti-Russia past of Orbán, it is a safe guess to say that there is not much trust towards him in Moscow.
In 2010 the new Orbán-government announced the foreign policy doctrine of the “Eastern opening”, in which fostering economic relations with Russia has played a key role. As the author has already pointed out, the “Eastern opening” was originally intended only as an economic, but not a political project. Hence, it did not mean that Hungary would actually be ready to give up its political and economic ties with the West.
The crisis in Ukraine provides perfect examples. In his rhetoric Orbán was very critical to the EU sanctions against Russia, called them “a shot in our own leg” – but finally did not veto them. Orbán himself was reluctant to condemn Russia for the aggression against Ukraine, but at the same time, lower ranking members of his government, such as former Minister of Foreign Affairs János Martonyi, Deputy State Secretary Zsolt Németh, etc. have done so many times. Despite his frequently voices criticism vis-à-vis the West, Orbán has been a co-operative member of NATO, and is contributing to the strengthening of the Alliance’s presence in the Baltic States, though this move certainly irritates Russia.
Earlier, the Orbán-government was successful in pushing out Russian gas company Surgutneftegaz from the MOL Hungarian Oil and Gas Company, buying back its 21,2% share in the Hungarian firm. Though the Russian company was highly critical about Budapest using various administrative measures, finally it had to give up its ownership. Though Hungary paid a decent price for the MOL shares, the main question was of strategic, and not of economic nature, and Russia has lost this position.
In February 2015 Orbán received Putin in Budapest, thus let the Russian President demonstrate that he was not fully isolated and could still come to Europe if he wished so. In exchange for this symbolic gesture, however, Hungary reportedly managed to achieve important changes in her gas delivery contract with Russia, besides signing a number of other agreements. During the visit Orbán criticized Europe for trying to isolate Russia – but thereafter, he again did nothing to prevent the sanctions getting tied to the implementation of the Minsk agreement, which meant a de facto extension of them until December 2015.
Besides, Orbán did not miss a single opportunity to ensure Chancellor Angela Merkel about the loyalty of Hungary to the foreign policy line of Germany. Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó declares frequently that Hungary was, is and will be in line with the EU foreign policy decisions. In addition to this, Hungary has offered 100-150 soldiers to participate in the operation against the Islamic State, in order to demonstrate Budapest’s commitment and loyalty to the United States. These moves, together with the maneuvering vis-à-vis Russia described above are characterizing a classic, multi-vectorial foreign policy.
Limits of Hungary’s multi-vectorialism
However, multi-vectorialism vis-à-vis Moscow has its own limits. Despite all dodging efforts, Hungary is getting increasingly dependent on Russia, while at the same time getting increasingly isolated in the West as well, mainly due to the worsening democracy indicators.
Keeping household energy prices low is key importance for the Orbán-government in order to preserve its domestic legitimacy. Though details are not yet known, taking into account Russia’s rich history of using energy pricing for political purposes, it would be surprising if Moscow would not try to take a good use of this leverage.
The widely criticized contract with Russia to build two nuclear power plant blocks in Paks is probably the first such case, in which Russia clearly seems to have the upper hand. The contract was signed hastily, without any known proper feasibility studies, and the project is going to be conducted on a long-term Russian credit line of 10 billion euros. If realized, the Paks project will strengthen Hungary’s dependence on Russia not only in terms of nuclear energy, but also financially, for several decades.
There are also other signs indicating that Russia does not trust Orbán at all, and is doing its best to gradually strengthen its influence in Budapest. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis Russian information warfare has become very intensive also in Hungary, conducted by websites and other channels apparently using native Hungarian-speakers.
Besides, in the Hungarian political landscape a fully pro-Russian political party has emerged, namely the far-right Jobbik. Members of Jobbik have participated in the Crimean and Donbass “referendums” as observers and Jobbik politicians are frequent guests in Moscow. Besides, the party is strongly pushing for a Ruthenian-Hungarian autonomy in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya region, which is very much in line with Moscow’s interests to get Ukraine federalized. Some Jobbik politicians even speak about the forceful “recapture” of the Hungarian-populated regions of Zakarpattya. What makes the picture even darker is that due to the weak governance and frequent corruption scandals of the Orbán-government, as well as due to the weakness of the leftist-liberal opposition forces, Jobbik is already the second strongest political force in Hungary after Orbán’s Fidesz.
The lack of any significant Russia-related espionage scandals may also indicate that Moscow already has very strong positions established in the Hungarian administration. Though recently a Jobbik MEP, Béla Kovács has been accused of espionage in favour of Russia, this has been the sole publicly known case for more than a decade. The contrast is at least remarkable, if one compares Hungary to Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, where expelling Russian diplomats in connection with espionage charges happens almost routinely.
One theoretically possible explanation could be, of course, that Hungarian counter-intelligence functions so efficiently that Russian spies have simply no chance. Another option is, however, that Russian infiltration is already so deep into the Hungarian political leadership and administration that Moscow is able to protect its agents from getting uncovered. Though details are unknown, the fact that recently a prominent figure of Hungary’s “Eastern opening” policy, Szilárd Kiss turned out to have close connections with Russian organized crime groups may point at the second variant.
All in all, one may conclude that the Hungarian government is gradually failing to maintain its balancing, multi-vectorial foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia. Though the Hungarian Prime Minister indeed has an affection towards authoritarian, non-liberal political regimes, this does not mean that he would be politically in favour of, or loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The original intention of Budapest’s “Eastern opening” policy was to intensify only economic relations with Moscow and maintain pragmatic, non-politicized relations with Russia.
However, the Kremlin with its patient, step-by-step strategy seems to be successful in getting more and more political leverages over Orbán. Hence, the time may soon come when Moscow will try to actively use its positions established in Hungary to break the already not adamant unity of the West – either through Viktor Orbán, or already without him.
* András Rácz is Senior Research Fellow of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki. The views expressed here are his own.
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